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Joe Nathanson: Baltimore’s battle against vacants

Unfolding his well-worn map like a general studying enemy lines, Michael Braverman focuses on an area of southeast Baltimore in the neighborhoods between the Johns Hopkins main medical campus and Patterson Park.

Braverman and Julie Day are the two deputy commissioners in Baltimore Housing commanding the war against vacant buildings and lots across the city.

The enemy in this campaign is the array of forces that have led to disinvestment and abandonment. More directly it is the glut of vacant buildings — 16,000 residential structures — that have been accumulating over the decades. (The census bureau recorded about 46,800 vacant housing units in the city in 2010, using a definition that counts each individual unit in multiple-dwelling structures.)

Many of these structures are owned by the city as the result of an earlier campaign to deal with vacant properties, then- Mayor Martin O’Malley’s Project 5000. The emphasis early in the last decade was to clear titles of properties abandoned by their owners and to bring them under the city’s control.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s initiative, launched in November 2010, is to bring about appropriate disposition of city-owned vacants.

Multidimensional strategy

As explained by Braverman and Day in a recent interview, Vacants to Value is not a one-dimensional strategy designed to transform vacant properties into rehabbed rental or for-sale homes. Indeed, working with a recently updated “housing typology,” Baltimore Housing has identified areas with strong markets, emerging markets and distressed areas with little market activity at the moment.

For areas with some signs of market strength and scattered vacant units, the key lieutenants are the housing inspectors in the field seeking out code violations and armed with the power to issue vacant building notifications (VCNs) that carry a $900 fine.

The objective is to encourage current owners to rehab properties and make them suitable for occupancy. Alternatively, the property can enter receivership and come under city ownership.

Transitional areas with more extensive vacancy rates are seen as more appropriate for redevelopment. Blocks with many city-owned vacant units can be offered to developers for extensive rehabilitation or razing and new construction.

The most-distressed areas will become part of an informal “land bank” and await future disposition when market conditions might become more favorable.

Down in the trenches

When asked how the Vacants to Value program was faring a year after its launch, the housing officials suggested checking with the development community to see what its experiences have been.

One of these development partners is Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit organization which acts as both developer and development consultant. I met with Charlie Duff, Jubilee’s president, to get a down-in-the-trenches view of the war. Duff, who has directed reinvestment efforts in many Baltimore neighborhoods since 1980, is very positive with the trajectory of the mayor’s initiative.

Working in the Greenmount West neighborhood, Duff sees the city acting very strategically. Entire corners are coming under city control, creating a critical mass of units and providing confidence that private investment will be reinforced by city responses.

One long-vacant property on Oliver Street is now the City Arts building, new construction that houses 69 affordable units for working artists, including studio space and a gallery. Jubilee partnered on this welcome addition to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District with The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit developer, and Annapolis-based Homes for America, affordable housing specialists.

Speaking by telephone with Sean Closkey, development director with TRF Development Partners, I found another nonprofit partner who is quite sanguine about the city’s current strategy in dealing with vacants. In addition to City Arts, TRF has been concentrating on rehabbing rowhouses in the Oliver and Greenmount West communities.

Closkey noted that he has been working in four states with 13 different municipalities. He claims that his public partners in Baltimore Housing “without question are the best.”

While it’s still early in the overall campaign, data compiled by Baltimore Housing suggests that progress is being made on several fronts:

-As an example of supporting large-scale redevelopment in distressed markets, the Uplands, with more than 700 new rental and for-sale units planned in West Baltimore, is set to begin leasing 108 rentals this spring.

-Code enforcement actions have involved more than 2,300 vacant properties, including 214 VCNs with $900 fines. Responses by property owners reflected in building permits obtained indicate over $26 million in new investment.

-Efforts to maintain, clear and “land bank” for future uses included 259 adopted lots as of the end of last year.

These steps sound encouraging. Still, this multipronged campaign will have to be sustained — and the pace quickened — if the city is to come close to the mayor’s goal of adding 10,000 net new households in the decade ahead.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record and can be contacted at [email protected]